Solarizing effectively turns lawn into garden

Posted March 27, 2009, at 5:56 p.m.

Walking through the greenhouses of Everlasting Farm (Outer Essex Street, Bangor) is a rite of spring for me — and the reason my container garden grows a pot or two larger every year. Owned and operated by Gail and Michael Zuck, Everlasting Farm specializes in annuals for container gardens, as well as succulents, heirloom tomatoes and hypertufa troughs.

“Plants you won’t find anywhere else in Maine,” proclaims their Web site banner at It’s no hyperbole.

Michael Zuck has forgotten more about plants and gardening than I will ever learn and I pay close attention to his words. Recently he wrote, “I’ve been impressed but not surprised by the dramatic uptick in vegetable gardening enthusiasm. I hope it signals a real and lasting change in our culture. My fear is that a good many people will spend good money on seeds and seedlings without having given enough thought and attention to the soil beforehand.”

Michael asked that I devote some words to the basics of turning lawns into gardens. Here they are.

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Do not dig up the sod and throw it, along with the topsoil, away! This makes about as much sense as throwing away gold. You want to get rid of the perennial grasses and weeds, but keep the nutrient-rich topsoil.

For converting large lawn areas to garden, nothing beats solarizing, but you must devote the coming season to the process. A compromise would be to solarize half or more of the future garden area this summer and use an alternative technique on the remaining area to get it into immediate production.

The basic solarizing technique is simple:

• In midsummer, mow the grass as short as possible.

• Soak the area to a depth of at least 6 inches. The water will be absorbed by the weed seeds, making them more susceptible to the heat and steam created by the solarizing process. Heat and steam will also help decompose grass roots and thatch.

• Next, cover the area with clear plastic that is at least 3 millimeters thick.

• Seal the edges all the way around the plastic so that the heat is trapped and cannot escape on a windy day. Heavy boards laid end-to-end work well for this purpose.

• Wait at least 6 weeks before removing the plastic.

• Cover the area with six inches of compost or composted manure and dig it into the soil.

To start gardening immediately, turn a portion of the lawn area over with a spade and rake out the clumps of grass and weeds, shaking each clump by hand to return as much of the topsoil as possible to the garden bed. Place the clumps upside down in a pile at the edge of the garden and let them compost over the summer, then add the finished compost to the garden the next spring. Be sure to toss out any dandelions and other weeds that survive the composting process. After removing the grass in this manner, dig in composted manure and start gardening.

Many years ago, when double-digging garden beds was in vogue, I would convert lawn to garden by first removing the top layer of sod and topsoil, setting it aside on a tarp. Then I removed the subsoil to the depth of a spade, placing it on another tarp. The sod and topsoil went into the bottom of the resulting hole with the subsoil on top. Finally, I dug 6 inches of composted manure into the new bed and called it good.

Note: Everlasting Farm is but one of more than 60 family-owned greenhouses in the Mid-Maine Greenhouse Growers Association. Visit their Web site,, to find out where these businesses are located and what they are growing for your garden this year.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to Include name, address and telephone number.

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